Accelerate Your PC

1/18/2013 6:02:16 PM

Don't put up with a slow PC. Find out how to measure and then boost performance in the first of a three part series

A slow PC is frustrating, and even more so if only a short time ago it was humming along like a well-oiled machine. These slow-downs can have a variety of causes, ranging from simple problems such as faulty Windows settings through to more obscure complications, such as hardware that has been badly set up.

How to Make Your Computer Faster?

The good news is that many performance problems can be fixed quickly and free and that is exactly what this first installment of a three part series of articles will demonstrate. In the next issue we will look at more complex free fixes then in the final part we will show how to choose and install a solid-state drive (SSD) to give an instant, and guaranteed, performance boost.

What is slow?

It can be hard to spot a gradual deterioration in performance on a single PC often, trying out a PC in a shop or using someone else's speedy PC is the first time it sinks in. The most common cause of complaints about speed is when a PC takes forever to start after being           a turned on (this is sometimes called the boot time). Programs taking forever to open and Windows menus that are slow to respond come a close second in the annoyance stakes, and other popular complaints include jerky video playback and unplayable 3D games. In this first of our series of articles we will concentrate on improving boot time and general Windows performance, leaving graphics performance the next installment.

Windows settings through to more obscure complications such as hardware that has been badly set up.

If you want to measure the performance improvements made by following this project then your PC's boot time can be accurately monitored using the free BootRacer program. Download this from and double click to open it. Click Extract All Files to extract the file to a convenient location, then double click the extracted file (it is called 'bootracer_38o.msi') to start the installation. When the program launches, click Start and choose Yes to restart the PC. When Windows restarts, wait until the large egg timer in the pop-up window disappears and the final boot time is shown. Click See Why to open the program and view details, or Exit to close the program. Details of each boot time are stored and can be viewed by clicking History in the main window.

BootRacer measures the time taken between the Windows logo appearing and the time when the Windows Desktop is ready to use. It does not measure the time it takes for the Windows logo to first appear. This delay is caused by the PC's Bios starting up and it varies a lot between PCs. We will look at some tweaks that could speed it up in the next issue.

Before trying out any of the fixes below, install BootRacer and restart the PC a few times to get an idea of the average boot time. This makes it easy to measure progress as changes are made.

Finally, a brief note about measuring Windows performance. There are many free programs for measuring a PC's overall performance, but these typically try to bypass Windows in order to determine the `true' speed of hardware components such as the hard disk or memory. The scores they produce are therefore not affected by changing settings in Windows. However, `benchmarking' software like this can be useful sometimes, such as when comparing hardware components. We will return to this topic later in the series.

Keep a tidy house

Our first task is to do some basic housekeeping. Removing unwanted programs is a simple task that is often neglected, but a bloated PC is often a slow PC. This is because any installed program might install services or tasks that can use memory or processor power, even if the program is not visibly open. They also take up hard disk space, and an almost full disk can affect overall performance because it can prevent Windows' defragmentation tool from working (as we will explain soon).

To view and remove installed programs, press the Windows and R keys together to open the Run box, then type appwiz.cpl in the Open box, click OK to see a list of installed software. There may well be forgotten programs that were installed ages ago but never used. However, don't remove anything unless you are sure it's safe to do so some programs with unfamiliar names may be needed by other programs.

To uninstall a program, select it and click the Uninstall or Uninstall/Change button (in XP it is labelled Remove or Change/Remove). If the program needs Windows to restart after being removed, always do this immediately.

To uninstall a program, select it and click the Uninstall or Uninstall/Change button

To uninstall a program, select it and click the Uninstall or Uninstall/Change button

Program updates can fix performance-sapping bugs, so regular updates are important find out how to update a program by checking the help file or visiting the manufacturer's website. Windows updates are important, too. In Vista/7, type windows update in the Start search box and press Enter, then click Change settings and choose `Install updates automatically' from the dropdown menu. In XP open the Run box, type sysdm.cpl and click OK. Select the Automatic Updates tab and select the Automatic (Recommended)' option.

A good free tool to help ensure all programs are updated regularly is Secunia PSI, available at This can automatically update most programs in the background, or alert the user when a manual update is needed.

Clear out the clutter

The next step is to check and defragment the hard disk, but before that we will clean out the junk files that Windows hoards. Open the Run box (see above), type cleanmgr in the box and click OK. If there is only one hard disk, after a few minutes a dialogue box with a list of files to delete will appear. All are safe to delete, but you can see details by clicking on an item and clicking View Files. However, in XP don't tick the Compress Old Files option, as it's of little use (it simply saves a small bit of hard disk space). In Windows 7, the Clean Up System Files button shows some extra items, such as Service Pack backup files, which are only of use if a Service Pack has to be uninstalled. One you've done this, click OK. If a PC has several hard disks, a dialogue box will ask the user to choose a drive choose C first, then repeat for the others later.

Customize Disk Cleanup tasks

Customize Disk Cleanup tasks

Healthy hard disks

Sometimes when a PC crashes or is shut down incorrectly, files can become damaged. These broken files can cause problems, such as freezes or crashes, so it is a good idea to check the hard disk regularly.

Open Windows Explorer (by holding down the Windows key and tapping E), right click on the drive labelled C: Choose Properties, then select the Tools tab. Click the Check Now button and ensure the box labelled 'Automatically fix file system errors' is ticked. Click Start, and an error message will appear. In XP, click Yes, or in Windows 7 and Vista click `Schedule disk check'. Restart the PC and the disk check will be performed before Windows starts be patient as this can take quite a long time.

When done, the hard disk can be defragmented, as long as 15 per cent of the drive's total space is empty and therefore available for use. In the same Tools tab as the disk check is located (see above), click Defragment now. When the dialogue box opens, click Defragment (or Defragment disk) to start the process. This may take several hours, but the PC can still be used in the meantime.

Windows 7 automatically tries to defragment the hard disk once a week, but only if the PC is turned on, so it is still worth doing manually every few weeks.

Under starter’s orders

If all is going well, the PC should be starting to feel a little livelier by now. The next stage should show even more improvements.

One thing that slows Windows boot times and affects performance is unnecessary tasks and programs running in the background. Take a look at the Notification Area on the Taskbar, and if there are more than just the standard Windows icons (clock, network status and so on), the chances are that performance is being reduced.

These tasks launch when Windows starts, and are often installed by programs without the user being aware. They include printer monitors, instant messaging, email notifications, anti-malicious software tools and so on. Handy, perhaps but not always necessary. It is easy to find out what effect these arc having on boot times by using Microsoft’s System Configuration utility (often abbreviated to ‘MSConfig’), a built-in tool to manage startup items.

If you haven’t already, install Bootracer (see earlier instructions) and measure the boot time. Then open the Run box (see above), type msconflg and click OK. On the General tab, click the radio button labelled ‘Selective startup’ and clear the box labelled ‘Load startup items’. Restart the PC when prompted. On XP, when Windows restarts a message will appear reminding users that MSConfig is in use - tick the box to suppress future warnings and click OK.

On our test PC, running Windows 7 with 20 startup tasks, we reduced the boot time from around ii6 seconds to just 6i seconds a 47 per cent saving. The improvement will depend on the number and type of startup tasks, but most users should see a noticeable benefit.

Of course, some startup tasks might be necessary, such as tools to eliminate malicious software, so to re-enable these run MSConfig again and select the Startup tab. Tick the box for the items that need to run, then click OK and restart the computer. To restore all items, click the Enable all button, or on the General tab click the Normal startup radio button.

Faster, faster

We’ve shown that some simple housekeeping can help Windows work a lot better, and in most cases by following the steps above, Windows should start quicker and feel a more responsive. But our quest for a faster PC is not finished yet, and in the next issue we will explain even more ways to boost performance for free. But if you have already noticed some impressive speed increases, we’d love to hear about them.

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